Blondel on “Tradition”


Maurice Blondel (1861-1949) was a French philosopher whose work anticipated the transcendental Thomists (e.g., Rahner) of a subsequent generation, the generation of Vatican II. His work in theology (at least, “History and Dogma”), however, reminds me of the ressourcement influenced theologians, like de Lubac and von Balthasar. A kinship with Congar can also easily be detected. This is the finest statement I’ve read (in my limited reading) of the contemporary Catholic position on Tradition — at least, I assume this is basically the majority position, but I’m sure that self-styled “traditionalists” are not big fans.


The usual idea evoked by the word Tradition is that of a transmission, principally by word of mouth, of historical facts, received truths, accepted teachings, hallowed practices and ancient customs. Is that, however, the whole content, is it even, where Catholicism is concerned, the essential content of the notion?

If that were so, there would be grounds for thinking that it would not resist analysis; and this would perhaps explain why the authority of Tradition is invoked over difficulties of detail, when precise or apposite arguments are not available. For in fact if it simply reports de ore in aurem what the first audiences did not write down, if it simply answers to a need for the esoteric or to a ‘discipline of the secret’, if even today its object is to teach us what the texts could have transmitted to us, simply supplementing the lacunae, their laconic form, and their failure to mention the commonest customs of the time, which are the least noticed, then how can one fail to see  how little usefulness it has? The interval of time which separates us from the sources, the inventive inaccuracy of popular recollection, the growing tendency of humanity to put down in writing all its reminiscences and all fine shades of meaning, the uprootedness of modern life with its consequent loss of continuity, the habit of committing everything to black and white (a sort of paper memory), surely all this results in the progressive erosion of traditions and the exhaustion of Tradition itself?

…those who cling to this point of view and speak of Tradition with the greatest respect and the greatest detail, always seem subject to a double presupposition: tradition only reports things explicitly said, expressly prescribed or deliberately performed by men in whom we are interested only for their conscious ideas, and in the form in which they themselves expressed them; it furnishes nothing which cannot or could not be translated into written language, nothing which is not directly and integrally convertible into intellectual expression: so that as we complete our collection of all that former centuries, even without noticing it, confided to memory — rather like students of folklore noting down folk-songs — Tradition, it would seem, becomes superfluous, and recedes before the progress of reflective analysis, written codification and scientific co-ordination.

Now these consequences are manifestly contrary to the spirit which inspires the Church, to the esteem in which she holds Tradition, and to the permanent and unchanging confidence which she places in it. …One only has to reflect for a moment on the role played by Tradition in the Church to see that it includes something altogether different from the transmission of the spoken word or of ancient custom. And, to state at once the full extent of the thesis I want to justify, I would say that Tradition’s powers of conservation are equaled by its powers of conquest: that it discovers and formulates truths on which the past lived, though unable as yet to evaluate or define them explicitly, that it enriches our intellectual patrimony by putting the total deposit little by little into currency and making it bear fruit.

“History and Dogma,” in The Letter on Apologetics and History and Dogma (Eerdmans 1994), pp. 265-267.


I will soon post bits from his positive statement on Tradition.



  1. I have this book but haven’t made any headway into it. So, thanks for posting this bit, and I look forward to the positive statement.

  2. This was very thought-provoking. I’ve always wondered if tradition plays a role in faiths staying insular. It benefits the individual churches because it helps them to know that people who convert to their faith are serious about it because they learned the traditions and what they stand for. But at the same time, tradition could make people outside the faith more wary or even afraid of something that they can’t translate in layman’s terms. Traditions sort of contradict every religion’s saying that they want to make the world better (in that they think everyone should be their religion.) Well how are people supposed to want to convert to a religion if they don’t understand it because its traditions are so intricate? Makes me wonder if it’s the traditions themselves that draw people to various faiths.

  3. The “intricacy” of the tradition is partly why it needs to be translated anew by each generation. Of course, this can be taken too far, and, thus, a great deal of energy in theology is spent on retaining the integrity of the faith “once delivered to the apostles.” Christianity has the distinct advantage of having a Person — Jesus Christ — as the controlling center of theological work, as opposed to having a set of “ideas” or “wisdom” that invariably run up against the limits of finitude and the conquest of evil. The Resurrection, not Self-Transcendence, solves all.

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